Curiosity and emotional state

There are at least two elements to what may be going on inside your mind: your curiosity and your emotional state.

While we are all born curious, we seem to lose this instinct or at least dampen it down as we grow older. A young child will ask hundreds of questions in a typical day, but an adult asks only a few. Partly this is because children have a lot to find out and their curiosity is consequently very high. Partly, I am afraid to say, it is a result of the tendency of schools and other formal educational institutions to discourage the inquiring mind in its attempt to gather and assess knowledge. As American scientist Paul Maclean puts it:

It surprises me how our culture can destroy curiosity in the most curious of all animals—human beings.

Essentially, curiosity is a natural love of learning. It is the driver for much of the informal learning that we undertake. We want to find out how to grow a certain plant, how to cook a new meal, or where a particular word comes from. We are intrigued and it spurs us on to do something about it.

Some people seem to be more curious than others. Perhaps their practical intelligence is very strong and they just have to find out how things work. However, you don't need to go much below the surface of most people to find something that interests them. That's why TV game shows, Trivial Pursuit, crosswords, and quizzes are popular with many adults.

In the UK, Ford has created one of the best-known employee development schemes, known as Ford EDAP. Under this scheme, each employee is given an amount of money and encouraged to go off and learn something that has no relationship to their job, but that stimulates their curiosity. These employees have found that you can relearn curiosity and get into the habit of enjoying asking questions. You can "reprogram" your brain to be curious.

What is your own curiosity rating? If you feel that you have lost your natural interest in find- A ing out about the world around you, try these simple activities. What kinds of things do you like doing most at home? Make a list of your top five. Now make a similar list based on your work. Study your two lists. Are these things really of interest to you? Do they make you want to find out more?

Who do you admire most in the world? What do you think they are most interested in? If you have children, what area of their interest most appeals to you? See if you can focus on just one new area of interest and rekindle your curiosity in it.

If this doesn't work, try watching less television (unless you are deliberately using it as a source of information). Set aside one night a week to do something for yourself. You could try a new sport, learn to cook something, go for a walk somewhere you don't know, or search the web for new places to go on vacation.

Think of the person in your immediate circle at work, or someone important among your friends at home, who seems to be the most curious and interested in life, and spend some time with them. Listen for how they ask questions and how they show their appreciation when they find out something new. Try to imitate them, using your own style of language and approach. Ask them why they are curious about some things and not others.

For many people, not being emotionally ready to learn is the root cause of their inability to do so. One of the most common causes of this is fear.

Often, this comes about as the result of past experiences. The British Campaign for Learning carried out some telling research with a number of older men and women to find out their attitudes to learning. One 68-year-old man started crying when he recalled his experience of a particular lesson at school. The fear of his failure came rushing back to him, still powerful nearly six decades later.

Or it could be fear of a current threat. You have already discovered how the most primitive "fight or flight" mechanism is controlled by the most basic part of your brain. In crude evolutionary terms, it does not do for human beings to be musing on the meaning of life if there is a woolly mammoth bearing down on them at speed.

In too many workplaces today there are the contemporary equivalents of the woolly mammoth, who create a climate of threat around them. Not surprisingly, people in these situations find it difficult even to begin to think about learning.

In the 1970s, researchers showed that when we think we are under threat, we cease to perform effectively. We stop being able to pick up subtle clues, process information less well, become more limited in our range of behaviors, and tend to overreact.

Another common inhibiting factor is stress. We know that stress affects the brain's ability to function properly. US politician Dan Quayle famously misspelled potato by adding an extra "e" and a UK education minister failed to answer a simple multiplication sum correctly (7 x 8) under the stress of a BBC radio interview.

When we talk of something "completely going out of my head," we are referring to the fact that our minds don't function well under great stress. Many of us have memories of examination situations when we know we didn't perform to the best of our ability because of stress. Something similar is going on when actors dry up on stage.

A hierarchy of emotional needs

The most famous description of this aspect of learning theory dates back to the 1940s and the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. It grew out of his more general work to understand human motivation and is often referred to as a hierarchy of needs, running from physiological needs such as food and sleep, through safety, love, and belonging and esteem needs, to self-actualization needs, realizing your full potential.

Put simply, this means that you are unlikely to be able to switch yourself on to learn something if your most basic needs— having enough food, not being too tired, having a reasonable roof over your head, being safe, feeling loved, and feeling that you belong—are not met.

At first thought, getting to the top of this hierarchy seems suspiciously as if it might depend on material wealth. True, you need enough money to eat and to have somewhere to live. But money cannot buy love and belonging. And, most importantly, it cannot buy self-esteem.

What is your most powerful learning experience to date? What is the most stressful experi- A ence you can think of? What effect did it have on you? How did you get on at school? Do you experience threatening situations at work, causing you unacceptable stress? If so, what action could you take to improve this? Can you think of times when you have been on a training course and you felt too stressed to take in what you were learning? What could you have done to overcome this? Do you treat all of your colleagues with respect, even those you find most difficult to work with?

How To Accomplish More In A Fraction Of The Time

How To Accomplish More In A Fraction Of The Time

The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave several of us feeling like a person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our day-to-day incessant busyness too much to do and not enough time; the pressure to produce and check off items on our to-do list by each day’s end seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us.

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